The Labour Party was decisively defeated in the UK general election of December 2019. The most immediate result is that the UK has now left the European Union. Brexit however does not just mean leaving the European Union but it represents the victory of a global far-right phenomenon; Trump in the USA, Bolsanaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Salvini in Italy, the AfD in Germany. Brexit is the British version of this wave of nationalism, racism and far-right populism.
It is important to understand the causes and consequences of this defeat. The defeat of the Labour Party marks the end of the Corbyn leadership and signifies the end of the growth of a radical left tendency in that party. Already the left in the party has entered a period of bitter internal struggle and that will only deepen whoever becomes the new leader.
We must now prepare for a long period of bitter defensive struggles. The analysis of this defeat must focus not just on the proximate causes but also its deeper roots. The neo-liberal onslaught of the last 40 years, privatising and deindustrialising, destroyed working class communities, many of which turned away from Labour to enable Johnson’s victory. These old industrial areas suffered not just from Thatcher’s policies but were also left to rot under New Labour. Poverty and social decay had provided an ideal breeding ground for far right ideas, uncontested by a Labour Party which had itself embraced neo-liberalism. Corbyn’s policies correctly identified and sought to address these long standing problems with strategies of investment and economic regeneration but confidence in Labour had been long destroyed.
These roots lie not just in the structure of British capitalism but can be found across the advanced industrial economies where there has been significant de-industrialisation. The left relied on these former industrial areas for its electoral strength but was unable to provide the policy prescriptions that would regenerate these areas and thus opened the path to reaction. This is as true of the so-called ‘red wall’ in the north of England as it is of the rust-belt states that went to Trump in the 2016 presidential election or those areas of northern France where Marine Le Pen is now strong.
The new Johnson government is moving quickly to cement its victory. We are seeing many of the same developments as we see in Poland with the Law and Justice party or with Trump in the States. The UK is moving to a more authoritarian form of government. Johnson is centralising the machinery of government in the hands of a small circle of unelected advisers.
Firstly, there are the real threats to the independence of the judiciary and there are plans for a new constitutional settlement. Secondly, there are attacks on those independent sections of the media. Johnson has banned his ministers from appearing on the main political programmes and is working to introduce a Fox News style of media.
There will be further attacks on citizenship rights and a strengthening of border forces and increased deportations. The first people to suffer are those from the Caribbean – deportation flights of those who have lived in the UK for decades will increase. In characteristic far-right fashion, citizenship is being stripped even from people born in Britain. The government has made it clear that EU citizens who fail to register will also face deportation.
These developments are widely supported as Brexit has seen the emergence of a particularly virulent form of English nationalism accompanied by xenophobia. There is much nostalgia, particularly in those areas where Johnson was most successful, for a past in which Britain was the dominant world power and where foreigners knew their place. Britain’s role in the second world war – seen as isolated but courageous, standing alone against fascism – is a popular narrative underpinning the desire for Britain once again to ‘go it alone’. The role of the Red Army in the defeat of Nazism is rarely if ever mentioned.
In terms of the general election and Brexit we are therefore facing a period of reaction but that is not the whole political story. Brexit has thrown the future of the UK as a whole into question. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. In the general election the SNP increased its representation and now there will be a struggle over the possibility of a further independence referendum. Moreover the success of Sinn Fein in the Irish elections brings closer the possibility of a united Ireland. We support the right of the people of Ireland and Scotland to determine their own future.
There is now less than a year for the UK to negotiate a trade deal with the European Union. The prospects are not good and can only lead to further conflict and will strengthen the populist right.
Johnson’s election victory will help Trump win re-election in the States and the close relations between the Trump and Johnson administrations will fuel tensions between the UK and the EU.
The Labour Party now faces a long period in opposition. The radical left has to work alongside those in the Labour Party who share our determination to resist this new right-wing government. None of the problems we face - worldwide economic slowdown and recession, environmental catastrophe, war and the possibility of pandemic and the growth of the far-right – can be resolved on a national basis. We must take the path to restoring the true content of internationalism which means not only building concrete links across borders with those in struggle, but developing collective strategies to secure left and progressive advance across Europe.